Cover image for A Delicate Matter: Art, Fragility, and Consumption in Eighteenth-Century France By Oliver Wunsch

A Delicate Matter

Art, Fragility, and Consumption in Eighteenth-Century France

Oliver Wunsch

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$99.95 | Hardcover Edition
ISBN: 978-0-271-09528-8

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192 pages
7" × 10"
50 color/20 b&w illustrations
2024

A Delicate Matter

Art, Fragility, and Consumption in Eighteenth-Century France

Oliver Wunsch

“A lyrical and witty rereading of eighteenth-century French art that connects the popularity of physically fragile artworks—from cracking Watteau paintings to precarious Clodion terracottas by way of disintegrating pastel paintings and quixotic experiments with encaustic—to a nascent consumer culture dependent on ephemeral goods. Wunsch adroitly joins sophisticated technical analysis to a thought-provoking argument about the ways in which the market shaped artistic practice, art collecting, and aesthetic theory.”

 

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Eighteenth-century France witnessed an unprecedented proliferation of materially unstable art, from oil paintings that cracked within years of their creation to enormous pastel portraits vulnerable to the slightest touch or vibration. In A Delicate Matter, Oliver Wunsch traces these artistic practices to the economic and social conditions that enabled them: an ascendant class of art collectors who embraced fragile objects as a means of showcasing their disposable wealth.

While studies of Rococo art have traditionally focused on style and subject matter, this book reveals how the physical construction of paintings and sculptures was central to the period’s reconceptualization of art. Drawing on sources ranging from eighteenth-century artists’ writings to twenty-first-century laboratory analyses, Wunsch demonstrates how the technical practices of eighteenth-century painters and sculptors provoked a broad transformation in the relationship between art, time, and money. Delicacy, which began the eighteenth century as a commodified extension of courtly sociability, was by century’s end reimagined as the irreducible essence of art’s autonomous value.

Innovative and original, A Delicate Matter is an important intervention in the growing body of scholarship on durability and conservation in eighteenth-century French art. It challenges the art historical tendency to see decay as little more than an impediment to research, instead showing how physical instability played a critical role in establishing art’s meaning and purpose.

“A lyrical and witty rereading of eighteenth-century French art that connects the popularity of physically fragile artworks—from cracking Watteau paintings to precarious Clodion terracottas by way of disintegrating pastel paintings and quixotic experiments with encaustic—to a nascent consumer culture dependent on ephemeral goods. Wunsch adroitly joins sophisticated technical analysis to a thought-provoking argument about the ways in which the market shaped artistic practice, art collecting, and aesthetic theory.”

Oliver Wunsch is Assistant Professor of Art History at Boston College.

List of Illustrations

Acknowledgments

Introduction: The Fragile and the Flimsy

1. Watteau’s Délicatesse

2. Pastel and the Allure of Fragility

3. Wax, Fire, and the Fashion for Permanence

4. Clodion’s Fragile Monuments

Epilogue: This Is So Contemporary

Notes

Bibliography

Index

Download a PDF sample chapter here: Introduction

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